For Readers & Writers
from Susan Dennard
M&D Issue #138

May 10, 2019

What's in this heart-to-heart?

Recent Goings On:

As you can see, I've completely revamped the newsletter (and my website)! And yes, I KNOW. Octopuses might seem like an odd choice...

Unless you know me. And then you would realize that octopuses (not octopi) are my favorite animals.

Well, they're my favorite aside from dogs. Because dogs are the greatest creatures that ever graced this earth, and we should all be thanking our lucky stars that we get to live in a world where dogs exist.

Dogs and octopuses.

Here are two epic octopus videos, in case you're not yet convinced of their evolutionary perfection: one and two. You're welcome.

In other, unrelated news, I started playing Arkane Studio's Prey last week, and it is WAY too much fun. It feels like a spiritual follow-up to Bioshock...but with the multiple play styles of Dishonored thrown in.

So really, it should also come as no surprise that I'm loving it, given that Bioshock and Dishonored are two of my most favorite franchises ever.

And also, it should come as no surprise that this is an Arkane Studios game, since they were behind the Dishonored franchise and Bioshock 2.

Have you played Prey? If so, what did you think?

For the DenNerds:


Come see me in England!

I'll be signing in the UK, my friends!

Come see me!! Like, PLEASE.

This is my first time ever signing overseas, and I'm quite nervous. It was all put together so last minute, and I'm worried no one will show at my events. Ha!

Here's where I'll be (along with the lovely Ashley Poston!):
Waterstones with Ashley Poston!!
Manchester, England
May 22, 2019 @ 6:30 PM
MCM Comic-Con
London, England
May 24-26, 2019


For the Daydreamers:

Intuitive Outlining

Last weekend, I was YallWest, which meant I got to connect with so many author friends -- and that always restores my writing soul.

Two conversations in particular, though, really got me thinking about my creative process -- specifically how I feel about the terms "plotter" and "pantser." You see, I find those words so LIMITING, especially for beginners who are still honing their creativity and storytelling.

Basically, pantsing is this idea that you write entirely by the seat of your pants. You don't know where the story is going, so you just make it up as you go along. It's pure freedom and creativity! In theory, at least.

Plotting, meanwhile, implies lots of planning prior to a draft, and the belief is that plotters write an outline and then stick to it.

Obviously, these are very rigid terms, and few writers fall exclusively into one camp or the other.

And of course, there are other terms out there, such as a "headlights planner" (who only plans ahead as far as the headlights reveal), "gardeners" (who plant story seeds and then nurture them to fruition, but can't guess what precisely might grow), or "architects" (who meticulously plan everything before they even begin).

What I don't like about any of these terms is how people tend to choose a label and then glower and glare at the processes associated with other labels. They don't glare at those people -- everyone knows processes vary -- but they glare at the actual processes themselves.

So for example, I cannot count how many times I've heard a self-proclaimed pantser say, Planning ruins the joy for me. If I already know the story, then where's the fun in writing?

Or, I'll hear them say, Outlining leads to stiff, flat prose. There's no heart in it!

Meanwhile, self-proclaimed plotters will say, Pantsing just leads to lots of rewrites and wasted words. Or, Books written by pantsers end up messy and lacking solid structure.

Oh, and my FAVORITE (not!) is when I hear people say that plotters end up with more plot-driven novels while pantsers end up with more character-driven novels.

What nonsense.

This is why I want to propose a new term: Intuitive Outlining.

The reason I think it's important to propose a new paradigm is because I fear that by applying rigid labels to ourselves, we close our brains off to new ways that might actually enhance our creativity.

I am SO guilty of this myself! It took me years to accept that sticking to an outline was actually strangling my creativity. Then it took me a few more years to accept that ONLY following my gut was leading to lots of wasted words.

What I needed was a healthy balance -- a form of planning that allowed me to both follow my id wherever it might lead while also maintaining a strong narrative structure and clear focus.

Enter stage left: intuitive outlining.

Intuitive outlining allows for plans that are flexible and constantly evolving according to feelings. In other words, it takes the best of both plotter and pantser worlds: outlines AND creative freedom.

I mean, the reality is that I have yet to meet a single writer who starts a novel with literally no idea of what's to come. Nor have I met a single writer who creates an outline and then never deviates from the plan.

That's not to say those people don't exist, but I've definitely never met them. MOST people are a little bit of both worlds. The only difference is how much prep work you do before you draft versus how much gets done while you draft or during revisions.

But to show this concept more thoroughly, I'm going to walk through what my OWN intuitive outlining looks like.

Before I ever start drafting a novel, I spend months preparing.

I realize that to some of you, this sounds awful. You fear that if you spend that much time thinking about your story, you'll lose your spark. The fun is in the discovery, right?

I 100% get that. I really do, and I will talk more about "discovery" below.

But I also just want to put forward that if it is truly so easy for you to get bored, then maybe this story isn't the one that needs to be written right now.

Feel free to disagree, of course. I am in no way trying to push my method onto ANYONE. It's just something I would like you (and especially beginners!) to consider.

If you are planning to enter traditional publishing, then you are going to end up reading and rereading your manuscript -- as well as revising and possibly even rewriting whole portions -- so often that your eyes will bleed.

If you're bored at just the thought of planning, then this might signal problems to come.

Remember: if you're not passionate about your story, the readers will sense that. Then they won't be passionate about reading it, either.

The thing that I love about my own preparation stage is that it does NOT in fact "ruin the surprise" or leave me bored when I finally draft.

Why? Because no matter HOW much I plan and prepare, the story never unfolds the way I think it will.

I repeat NEVER.

Instead, all that planning and preparation serves a single purpose: it provides me with the correct entry point.

This means that I begin the novel headed on the correct course. As a result, l avoid scrapping entire scenes or even entire drafts when I finally reach The End.

Let me break this down for you.

I was telling a friend last Friday that one of the key steps I take prior to drafting is "Truby-ify" my story.

I will go through all of the The Anatomy of Story by John Truby, doing every exercise until I reach the end of Chapter 8. What I love about this method is how it forces me to examine my story from all angles. It FORCES me to stress-test all my ideas and spot the holes before I begin drafting.

Then, upon reaching the end of chapter 8 and developing a pretty solid, 22-step outline...

I know exactly what the story is NOT.

That's right. I will Truby-ify my story just to figure out what the story isn't. Oh, I'll certainly find one way to tell the story, but it's almost never the Right Way.

As I said to my friend, "I reach the end of the outline, and think, Cool. That is definitely a solid story and could be the book. But it isn't. Then I go back to the primordial soup of the story and start brainstorming all over again."

In fact, I know when the Right Story is before me because it SINGS inside of me. I will feel the story deep in my gut. I willl hear the characters. And I will want to discover exactly where they're going to go next.

**If that isn't intuitive -- and if that isn't what pantsers love most about pantsing -- then I don't know what is.**

But instead of writing an entire draft and then discovering my entry point and structure were wrong, I stress test it alll in this detailed, Truby outline first.

How you can apply this approach:

  • Create a detailed outline by whatever method you like. If you hate EVERY second, then you know it's the wrong direction for you story.
  • Toss out that outline, and try again with a totally new angle, new entry, new character arc -- whatever. If you still hate the story...then you know this is wrong too.
  • Keep iterating and stress-testing until you finally settle on an outline that SINGS and a story that you are excited to dive into.

Now I'm sure some of you so-called "pantsers" are wondering, Why go through all of these outlines when I was excited to just dive in to begin with?

Again, the aim is to avoid REWRITES and to set yourself on the right course from the start.

Remember what I said about entry points? When I've found the correct entry, the story just topples out like dominoes. It's exciting, and I have a very clear sense of what comes next.

**And of course, if you're plotter, then you WANT to have a clear plan of where you're going. But rather than be locked into a single path, you've already found the BEST path that makes your heart sing.**

This doesn't mean you won't have to revise or rework things based on editorial or critique partner feedback, but it does mean you'll have a structurally sound book by the end of your first draft.

BUT OF COURSE, one outline will not carry you through to the end of your novel.

No matter how much you iterate and stress-test beforehand, it's likely you'll have to pause a few times throughout the drafting process and reevaluate your plan.

Why? Because when you're actually in the novel, nothing ever goes quite like you think it will.

I personally pause and reevaluate every 10,000-15,000 words. This just seems to be the natural point at which my latest outline no longer serves me. (And considering the first draft of Bloodwitch was 155,000 words, then that means my trajectory pivoted ~10 times.)

And I realize, this might leave plotters shuddering. But bear with me, okay?

Oftentimes, what makes sense in an outline doesn't make sense on the page. Forcing the story to stay "on track" then leads to character doing things just for the sake of the plot (*cough* Game of Thrones *cough*).

Just because you can write the story this way doesn't mean you should.

The key is to tap into your id and FEEL if this is the best way forward or not. FEEL if this is the choice the character would truly make in this situation, and if that choice is ultimately leading them where you need them to go from an emotional, character growth standpoint.

There are two things needed to make a good story:

  • Strong connection to the id.
  • Structural integrity.
But believe it or not, if you don't have a strong won't break the novel. As long as the id, emotional portion of the story is strong enough, people really won't care if the plot itself is kind of a mess.

The reverse, however, is NOT true. You could have a perfectly structured novel, but if there's no heart, then no one will care.

This is why I keep emphasizing FEEL YOUR WAY. You have to tap into your own heart and id in order to get that story onto the page.

And it might take lots and lots of practice before you get comfortable recognizing, "This story isn't working." I mean, I used to be so focused on hammering out a first draft that I would ignore all the warning signs (misery while drafting, aimless scenes, hatred for the characters). This in turn led to so many wasted words and drafts.

So if you're a "plotter," then practice this! And if you're a pantser, can't hurt for you to practice either.

How you can apply this approach:

  • As soon as the words feel like pulling teeth, stop writing.
  • Look at your outline, and evaluate if the problem is what you had planned.
  • Try to form a new plan. (I will actually re-Truby-ify!)
  • FEEL, FEEL, FEEL. Seriously, tap into your right brain and feel what would make the story sing again.
  • If the problem isn't your outline, assess if the problem is a previous scene. Would going back and changing the trajectory help put you on a heart-singing path once more?
  • Again: FEEL. I can't emphasize that enough.

And that, my friends, is what I call intuitive outlining. Like I said: almost every writer I've ever met has fallen somewhere on this spectrum. Few people are ALL pantser or ALL plotter, and I urge you to try leaning into the areas that you previously shied away from.

Especially if you're a beginner! It took me 6 published novels (and even more unpublished!) to finally settle on this "intuitive outlining" approach. And even someone who has been writing for many years can always find new ways to tap into their creativity.

And remember: every book will have different demands. The Witchlands series requires so, SO much more pre-drafting prep work than The Executioners Three.

You tell me: how do you prepare (or not prepare) when drafting a novel?

Upcoming Events:


Waterstones with Ashley Poston!!
Manchester, England
May 22, 2019 @ 6:30 PM
MCM Comic-Con
London, England
May 24-26, 2019
New York, NY
June 1-2, 2019

Thank you so much for reading! Have a wonderful weekend!

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Copyright © 2019
Susan Dennard
All rights reserved.

110 West 40th St.
Suite 2201
New York, NY 10018

I'm a misfit, a daydreamer,
a fangirl, an animal-lover,
a feminist killjoy,
and a gluten-free
cookie-eater. 🐙
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